The foreclosure sale of the Wonder House earlier this month has thrust that aptly-named home into the consciousness of those of us who toured it in our youth as a tourist attraction or visited in its heyday as a place for elegant parties.
Or, as in my case, both.
This remarkable structure on the south side of Bartow was built by Conrad Schuck over a period of years, beginning in 1926.
Schuck, who lived in Philadelphia, was told by his doctor that he had only a year to live. With that news, he moved to Florida and began construction on a house he never expected to finish.
He chose a relatively remote site that today is in the midst of some of Bartow’s nicer neighborhoods.
The structure has three stories, the first of which might have been a basement if the house were built in a state where basements are common; in Florida, they are not, given our state’s high water table.
The main living area is on the second floor, with bedrooms on the third floor. Admittedly, this is an over-simplification. You cannot adequately describe the layout of the Wonder House in two paragraphs.
It has many remarkable features, beginning with a decorative pool — it almost resembles a moat — in front. A concrete foot bridge goes over the center of the pool.
The wide outdoor stairway from the circular driveway to the second level is studded with mosaic tiles set in the concrete.
The house was built with 16 porches.
But as remarkable as the Wonder House is in appearance, it is its unique features that created a real sense of wonder. Many have been eliminated by subsequent owners, but the house originally boasted:
• Flower boxes on each of the porches that could be watered from a central location.
• A natural “air conditioning” system created by a series of hollow concrete columns that gathered rain water.
• An outdoor tub on the porch outside each bedroom. (Yeah, I’ve wondered the same thing. Keep in mind that the location was remote when Schuck began construction.)
• A system of mirrors that allowed residents and visitors to see who was at the front door from a number of upstairs rooms.
• A laundry chute in each bedroom and bathroom that went to a washing machine in the laundry room, which presumably was on the ground floor.
The house was a popular tourist attraction, and once was featured in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon panel.
Schuck died in the late 1960s, outliving his doctor’s prediction by some 40 years.
My early memories of the Wonder House date back to my pre-teen years, probably the late 1940s or early 1950s, when I would ride my bicycle with a friend or two to go see it.
While others say they remember when you could tour the house for a dime — later a quarter — my sometimes faulty memory is that that for a nickel you could gain entry to just the ground level, where there was a display of small animals preserved in gallon jars of formaldehyde or something similar.
I didn’t find it all that interesting, but it was cheaper than touring the whole house.
When we published a progress edition in 1976 (from which some of the detail for this column was obtained) Lucy DuCharme had purchased the Wonder House and converted it into a luxurious home. By then, air conditioning was of the conventional variety, and some of the novelty features had been eliminated.
Like many of her friends, I was invited to an occasional party. Everything Lucy did was on a dramatic or lavish scale, and a party at her home was not to be missed.
She allowed some scenes for the 1990 HBO movie “Judgment” to be filmed at her house, without asking what the scenes would be or even what the movie was about. This she later regretted. It was a film about a priest who molested young boys.
The only scene I spotted that was filmed at Lucy’s home was shot beneath that foot bridge over the pool. In it, the priest attempts to seduce an altar boy.
After seeing “Judgment,” Lucy referred to it as “that horrid film.”
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. Given Lucy DuCharme’s propensity for doing anything she undertook on a grand scale, she was affectionately known to some of her friends, including S. L., as Lucy B. DeMille.)